For all the enthusiasm that lots of gay men have about their sexual encounters, I often hear quite a bit about the shame some carry about their bodies.

It’s an interesting paradox. How can we fully celebrate who we are sexually and otherwise if we aren’t proud of who we are and how we look?

Getting past how we judge our bodies isn’t easy, but the rewards can be great.

I’m too fat! I’m too short! I’m too hairy (or too smooth)! I’m not hung (or I’m too big)! How about — I’m done with all that?!?

Being confident begins when you recognize why you aren’t comfortable in your body right now. We live in a world where the media, popular culture, our families, and our friends promote ideals that we come to accept are necessary to be wanted, to be liked, or even to be loved.

Don’t believe it? Take a moment, close your eyes, and think about what would make you “perfect” in your body. Got any ideas? It’s fairly easy to do. We walk around with these ideas, and we often don’t even realize it.

The problem with that kind of thought is that it keeps us trapped in ourselves. These thoughts encourage us to create unnecessary pain.

It could be helpful at times to lose a bit of weight, or perhaps it would benefit us to bulk up a bit more. Or, perhaps, it would be nice to walk around with a bigger dick, or one that doesn’t frighten every guy who comes around. Or maybe it would be cool, just once, to have someone enjoy your hairy body if you are smooth, or enjoy a smooth chest if you’re hairy.

But, the challenge with all of this is that it creates barriers to loving ourselves as we are.

How to begin: Move past belief barriers

Too often, the biggest challenge with these beliefs or thoughts is that they keep us from ever becoming comfortable enough with ourselves. When we aren’t comfortable with ouselves, we can’t truly be comfortable with others. A rigid “ideal,” then, can be a source of great pain and limitation.

The truth is we live in a word of infinite variety.

There is no one ideal type; every culture differs. Some men like short men; some men like potential mates to be tall. Some guys enjoy pencil thin, sinewy-bodied types; others enjoy the cuddly-ness of cubs and bears. I’ve spoken to just as many men who enjoy smooth skinned guys as guys who love to bury their faces in deep pelts of fur. And there are just as many guys who would prefer men with cocks of more manageable size for pleasure as those who we shame as “size queens” because they seek the more endowed among our tribe.

And, it’s challenging enough to know what you prefer in someone else. When the tables are turned, you may realize you are creating unfair expectations of what you think YOU should be for others. These expectations can greatly limit your ability to be happy, much less just satisfied with who you are in the world.

Start by looking outward: Getting past the shell

How often do you reject a guy because he doesn’t meet your “ideal?” I often hear stories from gay men who torture themselves because they “have to turn away” potential partners. Often the guy describes how he ended the possibility of a deeper relationship because his interest was missing something that, in the larger scheme of things, probably would have been a minor issue. “Oh, he was wonderful, but not he was not tall enough,” or “I really fell for him, but he could stand to lose a few pounds,” or “He would have been a perfect package – if he only would have been hung.”

Now, take a pause. If this has been your experience, there is an invitation here. The invitation is to expand your perspective, to pay attention to your limiting thoughts and words, and perhaps, to jettison your unreasonable expectations.

There’s nothing wrong with having preferences, but if you’re out to find the “perfect mate,” you may end up severely disappointed and alone. True, for a few men, they are able to find someone who possesses almost all of the physical characteristics they seek in a partner. However, people age, people change, and perhaps most importantly, relationship deepens, and you may find yourself needing things from that person that have nothing to do with their physical appearance.

And then the inevitable breakup happens, and you must begin again.

And perhaps the greatest damage is done when, in convincing yourself of your needs in another, you are challenged to turn back to looking at yourself. The pain here can begin un-noticeably. You slowly but eventually start to make significant changes in your physical appearance that could possibly be unrealistic, harmful, or keep you trapped in your self-perpetuating situation.

The best way to move past these challenges is to simply begin bringing awareness to where you are in your relationship with your body, and to pay attention to your expectations of others. But don’t beat yourself up if you recognize your are limiting your happiness by judging yourself, or judging others. Just recognize what you are doing. Eventually, for many, the journey to change begins in those moments. Awareness is often the most powerful ingredient to begin the healing.

Looking in the mirror: Learning to accept and love yourself

The toughest part of this process of coming to love yourself in your body is to confront where you are and where you need to go. We are often our own harshest critics, and the ideals that others may impose on us are rarely as damaging as the ones we impose on ourselves.

Recognize too, that we live in a world where we can bring about change to those things we are not happy about with our own bodies – but those changes can come at a steep price. For example, starving yourself or spending a fortune on fad diets may help you lose weight. Hair removal services can help you stay smooth-but the process can be painful and continuous. And there are always gimmicks and surgical options marketed to us if you want to increase our penis size, and most options bring only limited results.

Instead of continuing on with these options, take a moment to stop and ask yourself – Will this truly make me more happy?

The more affordable, and I would argue, the more realistic alternative, is to learn to come to accept yourself as much as possible. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t control your weight or focus on personal grooming habits, but consider being realistic with those issues, and the reasons you are pursuing them. Losing weight to curb potential long-term health problems is a good idea. Losing weight to attempt to attract a mate may work in the short term, but what if you are unable to maintain it? Is that worth the heartbreak of losing a love?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it would be best to learn to love who you are, and to do what you need to do to be happy with yourself. Consider not focusing so much on what you think the world is asking of you. Instead, think if it may be better to find someone (or others) who accept you for you, rather than to be around people who spend their time wanting you to be who they think you should be for them.

And maybe-just maybe-as you show the world who you really are, the world will show up for who you are truly meant to be.

This article was originally written for publishing on Himeros.TV, a project of Davey Wavey, Digital Storyteller.

Photo by leo abdelnaby on Unsplash.